Why We Need ‘Travel Experts’

Pity the poor “travel expert.” Just about everyone wants to be one—or at least drink cocktails on a beach for a living (and do let me know if you find that job description out there). Yet which “title” gets air-quoted more often?

This probably happens because, unlike a field like neuroparasitology, a lot of people travel a lot. (In 2013, a billion international trips were taken.) And more travelers are going DIY, opting to—as the buzzy phrase goes—“travel like a local.” This usually means skipping expert advice and typical attractions, and following recommendations found on crowdsourced review sites.

The results of going that route are often great. But the trend begs some questions. Do travel experts have a future? Are they even necessary anymore?

Can I say, Yes?

This might come off a bit self-serving—after all, my career revolves around giving travel advice—but I’m saying it just the same: Without travel expertise shared in some form (be it a guidebook, a string of tweets, or handwritten notes), I can see it taking a toll on tourism, creating a world in which fewer false perceptions are put to the test and, ultimately, creating a bottleneck at popular spots. Naturally, great trips can still happen in this world, but within a somewhat diminished context.

The notion of and need for travel expertise has centuries of precedent.

Read through the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus, an illuminated French guidebook on Spain’s still-epic Camino de Santiago, and you’ll find the basic elements of a modern travel story: There’s practical advice (Navarre “has plenty of bread, wine, milk and cattle”); inspiration (on the Cize pass “you’ll feel you could push the sky with your hand”); and even warnings (Burgos is “lacking in firewood and the people are evil and vicious.” Ouch.).

Times have obviously changed, even in Burgos. One of the biggest game changers in travel is the rise of user-generated content (UGC), with sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp revolutionizing how people plan trips.

I use these sites all the time. They can be helpful when you’re looking for a nearby café, or already know where you’re going.

They’re less helpful, I find, when you’re trying to suss out which city or country or region to visit in the first place—or how to find out what’s supposedly “real” or “authentic” there. This is partly because popularity—as these sites tend to order things—isn’t always the most rewarding signpost by which to travel.

Take Bulgaria, for example. Half of TripAdvisor’s top 20 destinations in the country, all ranked by popularity, are resort destinations offering cheap package tours. No. 3, for example, is Sunny Beach, which is an overdeveloped strip of cheap condos that the Guardian mocked for its “ever-deepening layer of teenage vomit.”

I spent five months researching articles and guidebooks on Bulgaria. I drove over the Shipka Pass in a ’72 Moskvitch, walked isolated Black Sea beaches alone, stayed with a family who slaughtered a goat on my behalf, and had Dunkin’ Donuts with an ousted prime minister. These experiences, if I may say so, beat out anything in their top 10.

Instead of going to the relatively well-trodden capital city of Sofia, consider the low-key (and former capital of Bulgaria) Veliko Târnovo—and its day-trips to waterfall swimming holes, wood-cutter villages, and ancient Roman roads. Or Tolkienesque Belogradchik Fortress, which wraps around giant pinnacle rocks so lifelike they’re named for people.

Some people think travel experts merely get paid to travel. When they’re at their most useful, they don’t; they get paid to work, and travel is a big part of that. Unlike most travelers, they don’t tend to go to one place and write about it; they go to 37 and write about three or four of them.

Expert advice is as much defined by what’s included as it is by what isn’t—i.e., the stuff on the editorial cutting floor you’ll never see. Perspective and context are the chief offerings, with experts providing road-tested shortcuts others can follow in pursuit of great travel experiences.

But what about locals?

I love locals. Meeting them is frequently the highlight of a trip. Travel writers have long leaned on locals for practical advice, “secrets,” and hole-in-the-wall noodle stands. But never exclusively. It’s the outside perspective—the curation, you could say—that makes what a travel writer gleans useful to fellow travelers.

In the end, it’s ultimately better to “travel in the company of locals” than like one. An added, and perhaps unintended, benefit? I find again and again that being exposed to an outside perspective allows locals themselves to see their hometowns with new eyes.

Celebrated travel writer and former Lonely Planet guidebook author Robert Reid is a featured digital reporter for Nat Geo Travel. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

Comments

  1. Molly
    United States
    April 26, 2015, 3:41 pm

    Nice piece and the ending “…it’s ultimately better to “travel in the company of locals” than like one.” made me laugh – so true!

    I think ‘travel like a local’ was partly a shift from ‘backpacker travel’ ‘travel on the cheap’ etc. yet still for the same kind of person… someone with a tight budget! Traveling like a tourist is expensive, and can be boring though fits the bill for a quick trip and for someone who has the cash to blow but little time to research and plan.

    Either way, someone who has been there and has some skills in sharing their experience of a place and people in a way that goes beyond the organized, tourist guide-led minivan excursions is definitely information of value and someone to be valued in the travel writing field.

    I hesitate to use the ‘travel expert’ term (except maybe for folks who work at NatGeo, Matador, NYT, etc!!) as too many use that as a way to market those touristy over-priced trips to unsuspecting folks thinking they are going to get an authentic experience abroad and get nothing of the sort.

    So many talented travel bloggers/travel writers out there in all parts of the world sharing a multitude of gems of great indie ‘off the beaten track’ travel advice on their websites and blogs for free – seeking out that information is what someone should try to add into their trip planning IMHO.

  2. GH
    NYC
    April 26, 2015, 2:02 pm

    The traveling in the company of locals vs. like one distinction is important. You can’t presume you are member of a local community as an inherent outsider. It is precisely the view from the outside that offers another perspective to locals that they often find of interest in my experience. But it helps to demonstrate as a fellow human being that you can laugh at yourself and your own cultural background, and not come off condescendingly and therefore naively.

    Native New Yorkers, for example, often stand out like sore thumbs outside of NYC, even with their own tendency towards the “seen-it-all-before” view of the world. Cynicism can come off as an arrogant form of naivete, as one who has lived abroad and heard the remarks coming from offended or amused locals.

    And yes, without experts to guide or to take you deeper into context and with informed perspectives, very interesting stories and surprises will very clearly be missed.

    Making yourself a bit of an expert by reading local and historical writers, studying the culture, whether while planning a trip or during the trip provides a historical and cultural context that paradoxically enhances the dimensions of atmosphere as well as the sense of spontaneous experience and possibilities for epiphanies.

    Reading the Odyssey from childhood, the Greek myths, Greek writers, poets, philosophers, historians and studying Greek artists, etc., brought many layers of atmosphere to several multiple-month trips through Greece, for example. Seeing scenes from the Odyssey played out as described 3,000 years ago at the same exact locations, such as the washing clothes in the sea, herding of cattle, or harvesting of grapes, brings it all home vividly.

    Experts, local and from abroad, likely can provide much invaluable context and additional insider info, but you can and likely should also develop some measure of expertise with your own research if only out of curiosity and respect, and not based upon anonymous reviews or group-think.

    When it comes to great restaurants or possible green itineraries, the expert culinary evaluators and guidebook writers at Michelin, for example, have generally proven to be far more reliable oracles than the thousands of contradictory and largely anonymous testimonials found on group review sites.

    You can always go it alone like a rolling stone at home and abroad anytime, anywhere, and enjoy the rewards of a vagabond. But a rolling stone can also fall off of an unknown cliff randomly.

  3. Anuradha Goyal
    Goa, India
    April 21, 2015, 11:29 am

    I guess the crowdsourced information and expert advise both are needed. Both have a purpose. Experts needs to be a few steps ahead of the rest of travelers to be able to advise while anyone who travels can contribute to the Crowd sourced information.

  4. Frederic Bardin
    Dubai, Hong Kong
    April 19, 2015, 9:39 pm

    This is very eloquently put, Robert, and I totally agree with your comments. A Travel Counsellor myself, with some 40 years experience in the travel industry, I still rely on local but professional expert advice to organise my clients’ trips. DIY clients often either miss out on great experiences very close to places they actually visited, or follow advice from websites such as those you mentioned, only to find out that another individual’s dream is their own nightmare.

  5. MLK
    Los Angeles
    April 19, 2015, 3:53 pm

    I feel Robert has interesting and valid points about travel and opinions posted online. Not always easy to pick and choose the best of everything your read, but if I can avoid the tourist resorts, I am usually happier. I love to connect with local families…I have had many cups of tea, in distant villages and been invited to dinner where the ‘best” was brought out to honor my presence and I was the one so appreciative and learned of them!

  6. Mariellen Ward
    Canada
    April 19, 2015, 3:49 pm

    Hi Robert, I can tell you from my experience as an India “travel expert” who has spent a total of two years travelling there, and who publishes a popular blog about travel in India: I get a LOT of people contacting me for information. They definitely feel they need the guidance and advice of someone who’s been there. Cheers.

  7. Abby
    United States
    April 19, 2015, 9:28 am

    Very well said, Robert!

    Thank you for your nuanced argument and great advice :) Will be contacting you with any travel questions in the future!

  8. marsha muller
    Greensboro , Belize
    March 20, 2015, 1:04 pm

    For 30 years I lived in Belize on the island of San Pedro. Have extensive knowledge of the country and will share anyone traveling to that destination. thank you.

  9. Poornapragna Gudibande
    India
    March 14, 2015, 1:10 pm

    Hey Robert,

    Very well said. Since each travellers experience is different, we need more experts. You are absolutely correct when you talk about locals.

  10. Sean O'
    NJ
    March 13, 2015, 7:47 pm

    This is such an eloquent essay, I hope it’s nominated for an award. I’m not a travel expert, but I enjoy traveling and I follow the writings and documentary work of many travel experts. They lack the marketing budgets of billion dollar corporations, and they’re not as appreciated as they should be.

  11. Ray Feldhaus
    Bulgaria
    March 12, 2015, 10:40 am

    We found Plovdiv a fun place to visit before taking the overnight train to Istanbul. Also the Black sea resort of Varna, both have interesting Roman ruins, museums and friendly people.